On paper, James Harrison shouldn’t still be playing football. In fact, early in his career, it didn’t look like he’d ever play at all.
He’s a 39-year-old outside linebacker who started his career as an undrafted free agent who was released three times by the Steelers between 2002 and 2004, and once by the Baltimore Ravens, in 2004. He was going to quit the game when the Steelers gave him one more chance. He mostly played special teams in 2004. Since then, he’s played in two Super Bowls; returned an interception for a 99-yard touchdown in one of them; been named the NFL Defensive Player of the year; been released for a fifth time in his career (this time for salary-cap issues); retired; and come out of retirement to become the Steelers’ all-time sack leader.
Since coming out of retirement, Harrison has played like a freak of nature. Originally signed as a stop-gap in 2014 because of several key injuries to defensive personnel, he flourished. He had five-and-a-half sacks and 29 tackles in 2014, and earned himself a new two-year deal. He played even better under that deal and, earlier this year, he signed another two-year deal, this time worth a reported $3.5 million.
The assumption coming into the season was that Harrison would once again start, and complete the remaining time on his contract. That seemed to be the case until a couple of weeks ago, when Steelers linebackers coach Joey Porter announced that Harrison had been supplanted from his starting post by rookie T.J. Watt. For the first couple of weeks of camp, Harrison had been noticeably kept out of live practice in pads. He didn’t get his first action until the Steelers broke camp and returned to the team’s South Side training facility. At press time, he was slated to play in the Steelers’ third preseason game.
The day after that announcement, Harrison found out about the switch when “y’all told me.” The “y’all” in this case was a crowd of at least two dozen media members angling to get Harrison’s reaction. We didn’t get much.
When asked whether he hoped to start this year, Harrison replied: “You hope for a lot of things, but it’s whatever they ask you do.”
When asked what went into the decision, Harrison answered: “You’d have to ask the coaches. I didn’t make the decision.”
Asked whether being held out of practice hurt him in the position battle that he didn’t even know he was in, Harrison said: “Whatever they want to do, I’ll do. I’m not going to argue about not practicing at training camp.”
While he wasn’t in pads, Harrison was seen almost daily working out on the field, wearing a heavy gray hoodie and sweatpants, soaking them through with sweat as he conditioned. Reporters kept trying to pull information from the always-stoic Harrison.
What do you think of T.J. Watt? “He looks good.”
How are you feeling? “I feel fine.”
Without practicing in pads, are you in football shape? “I don’t know.”
Do the coaches think it’s best to use you off the bench? “I don’t know what they’re thinking.”
As a competitor, is it tough on you when they say, “We don’t want you to play as much?” “It’s fine. I’m not worried about it, man. Whatever they want me to do. I’m 39 years old and still playing football.”
You know how to fight for your spot; haven’t you done that your entire career? “It’s all right. It is what it is. It’s not like I can play this game forever.”
These questions and answers continued for a little more than five minutes. But as the session was ending, a mundane question elicited an interesting response. He was asked if he still planned to play until he was 40.
“I want to win another Super Bowl. I want to get another Lombardi,” Harrison said before ending with, “I’m thinking of going to 40, if I can go to Vegas. Check out that Las Vegas Raiders team.”
The comment drew chuckles from the crowd and a smile from Harrison. Besides, the Raiders won’t move to Las Vegas until 2019, when Harrison would be 41 years old. But if anyone is willing to give him a helmet and some playing time, whether that’s the Steelers or not, don’t be surprised if he goes for it.